'It wasn't my fault': Trump may have alienated the religious right wing. It's an opening for rivals in Iowa

'It wasn't my fault': Trump may have alienated the religious right wing. It's an opening for rivals in Iowa

After Donald Trump jammed the midterm red wave and doomed a Senate GOP takeover with his abysmal candidate picks, he predictably went on the war path to find a scapegoat. Eventually, he settled on one.

"It wasn't my fault that the Republicans didn't live up to expectations in the MidTerms," Trump posted on Truth Social in early January, a couple of months after the Republican face plant.

"It was the 'abortion issue,'" Trump offered, "poorly handled by many Republicans, especially those that firmly insisted on No Exceptions, even in the case of Rape, Incest, or Life of the Mother, that lost large numbers of Voters."

Just a couple of short weeks after the GOP's midterm drubbing, Trump had announced his third bid for the White House. By January, he was actively nursing grievances that many evangelical leaders hadn't endorsed him on the spot.

Mid-month, Trump joined Christian fundamentalist David Brody to take his complaints directly to Brody's fundie listeners on Real America's Voice.

"Nobody has ever done more for Right to Life than Donald Trump. I put three Supreme Court justices, who all voted, and they got something that they’ve been fighting for 64 years, for many, many years," Trump said of the high court's quick work in overturning Roe v. Wade.

"There's great disloyalty in the world of politics and that’s a sign of disloyalty," Trump explained.

In other words, he had scratched evangelicals' backs, and they damn well better start scratching his.

But they didn't exactly fall in line and guess what: Many Christian right-wingers aren't super thrilled about being blamed for the GOP's midterm losses. Although, truth be told, their forced birther fervor certainly contributed to Democrats' ability in 2022 to defy the political gravity of historical norms.

Now not only is Trump angry, he's also afraid of the abortion issue. Although Trump is engaging in the basics of retail politics in Iowa ahead of its first-in-the-nation GOP caucus early next year, he has also been assiduously avoiding the topic—or even uttering the word "abortion."

Although a declining share of the U.S. population identifies as white evangelical and their vote share isn’t as dominant as it was in the 2000s, white evangelicals still hold considerable sway in the Republican Party. That is particularly true in Iowa. In 2016, roughly two-thirds of Iowa Republican caucus-goers self-identified as born-again/evangelical Christians.

That vote share gives white evangelical leaders like Bob Vander Plaats, president of the right-wing group The Family Leader, enormous power in Iowa's Republican caucus, even if the Iowa GOP's heavily older, white, and evangelical voters bear little resemblance to the national electorate overall.

Earlier this month, Vander Plaats told TheNew York Times that evangelicals had taken note of Trump lashing out at Christian zealotry on abortion.

"It showed a character thing with Trump that he cast the blame on the pro-life movement," Vander Plaats said. "If you're trying to win the Iowa caucuses, I would not put that base under the bus."

But here we are. And even though Trump has recently been gaining in national polling against his chief rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Trump's position in Iowa has eroded considerably over the past couple of years.

Earlier this month, a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found that 47% of Iowa Republicans now say they would definitely vote for Trump, a 22-point drop from two years ago when 69% of GOP voters were firmly committed to him.

J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the poll, told the Register that Trump is no sure thing at this point, despite his obvious advantages as a force in the Republican Party.

"Someone who has already held the office and who won the state twice would be presumed to be the front-runner, and I don't know that we can say that at this point," remarked Selzer. "There's nothing locked in about Iowa for Donald Trump."

So what would it mean if Trump didn't win the Iowa caucus, which is a distinct, perhaps even likely, possibility?

Maybe it means little. In 2016, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas edged out Trump for first place by about 3 points, 27.6% - 24.3%. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida also gained some viability by coming in a close third at 23.1%. But ultimately, both Cruz and Rubio—along with every other Republican—flopped and Trump ran away with the nomination.

However, winning/losing in Iowa is very much an expectations game, and the expectations for Trump now, as the standard-bearer of the party, are quite different. Finishing second could easily be a sign of weakness, particularly if someone else places a close third. And the perception of weakness is Trump's political kryptonite.

So expect to see many of Trump's key rivals touting both their Christian and anti-abortion cred in Iowa over the coming months. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is likely to sign a six-week abortion ban soon. Then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed a 20-week abortion ban in 2016 that included exceptions for the life of the mother and unviable fetuses. And true believer Mike Pence, forget about it—Iowa will likely be his only shot for a solid early finish if he decides to run. Although, I'll be damned if every single focus group that explores a Pence candidacy doesn't find the same thing—he's got no constituency and even less appeal.

Atlantic reporter McKay Coppins recently sat in on several GOP focus groups and jotted down some quotes about Pence:

  • "He's only gonna get the vote from his family, and I'm not even sure if they like him."
  • "He has alienated every Republican…It’s over. It’s retirement time."
  • "He just needs to go away."

In a word: brutal, as Coppins noted.

In any case, DeSantis, who technically hasn't announced for 2024, has been taking it on the nose lately as he tries to transition into the demands of a national candidacy. But despite his dip in national polling, Iowa quite simply ain't America.

Iowa evangelicals will more than likely decide who wins the state and by how much, and that could conceivably reshuffle the fortunes of several 2024 GOP hopefuls. It might be less about who actually wins the caucus than whether Trump suffers a significant blow and some other discounted underdog, such as Haley, finds life with a better-than-expected showing. Or what about Haley's South Carolina counterpart, Sen. Tim Scott, if he gets in. If either of them gained momentum coming out of Iowa, they only have to get through New Hampshire to reach friendly home-state turf in the third contest of the GOP primary.

This is just a reminder that it's only March, and Iowa evangelicals aren't particularly moved by national polls.

As GOP strategist David Kochel told the Hacks on Tap podcast this week about Iowa evangelicals: "Whoever they end up going to—and they move late and they move as a group—I think that will be who wins the Iowa caucuses in 2024."

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